Project Canterbury

Locust Street Letters

By Frank Lawrence Vernon

Philadelphia: St. Mark's Church, Locust Street.




The Collect for Ash Wednesday is our daily prayer through Lent. The Collect is a prayer for a new and contrite heart, that we may worthily lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness. In using this prayer we need to emphasize the word worthy. Our Lord has taught us that we must bring forth fruits worthy of repentance.

Just what does this mean? The word repentance in the New Testament means, as you will remember, a change of mind. About what? It begins with a change of mind about ourselves. We discover that we cannot make life work out on the basis of self-interest. Our lives do not belong to us. We are not free to live our own lives as though no one else existed or mattered. Everything that we do or neglect affects some one else. Some one else must suffer for our sins. Some one always does. We may think that we have a right to do as we please. We have no right whatever to make some one else suffer for what we please to do. If we do not know that, the sooner we find it out the better.

Repentance is finding this out. Repentance is getting out of ourselves. Remorse on the other hand is getting mired in ourselves. Repentance is thinking about others. Remorse is thinking about ourselves. Repentance is a healthy state of mind. Remorse is a morbid state of mind. Repentance is a climb. Remorse is a plunge.

Repentance is not as easy as it might seem. The roots of self-regard lie deep. The habit of self-regard is an obstinate one. So, even when the first motions of repentance have begun, the tendency to regard self remains. The first thought is of the grievous memory and the intolerable burden of our sins. This is inevitable and necessary and salutary. But it is only a very imperfect form, a very elementary stage. There is a long, long way to go before the fruits worthy of repentance will begin to appear. Yet the seed of repentance is in the soil of emotional sorrow, and even in the less worthy emotion of fear. God accepts it, if it is all we are capable of.

When we begin to think of those who have suffered because of our sins, and when we begin to think of the reparation we owe to them, and when the desire to make reparation becomes the ruling desire, then the fruits of repentance begin to be more worthy.

When we begin to think of God whose love has been outraged by our sins, when we begin to think of the reparation we owe to Him, when we desire to make reparation to Him, at whatever cost of suffering to us, then the fruits of repentance begin to be most worthy.

What has happened is this. We cease to think of, or to desire to escape from, the painful consequences, to us, of our sins, and begin to long with passionate desire to escape from the power of sin. We want only one thing, and that is to stop sinning. For this release we become willing to pay any price of personal suffering, for the love of God. This is perfect contrition. This is the love that casteth out fear. The earliest stage—attrition—is fear, and it is the stage of torment. The final stage—contrition—is love. There is no fear in love.

Yet even at this stage, all the fruits worthy of repentance have not appeared. The soul is prepared though to produce them. They are produced in the experience of temptation. The soul must be tried in the furnace of spiritual and moral combat. The will must be tested. The high aspirations are all very well. The devout emotions are all very well. But both need to be tested before they can be accepted as real. They must make good, as we say. Temptation is the method of testing. It has in it an element of expiation. The temptations that assail us after absolution are sometimes the consequences of old sins, forgiven, but leaving the temporal consequences of liability to special temptations.

Sometimes this is not so. But whether the temptations are old or new, we may be thankful for them because they give us opportunity for validating penitence and for offering acts of reparation. Each resistance toughens our moral fibre. Every victory brings us a stage nearer stablished virtue. This when it is attained will be the fruit worthy of repentance.

The Collect for today sets the whole idea in motion. We are taught to pray for grace to use such abstinence that, our flesh being subdued to the spirit, we may ever obey God's motions in righteousness and true holiness. The purpose of the bodily abstinence is to set the body free from everything that disturbs its normal functioning as an instrument for the soul. This spiritual freedom, won through bodily discipline, is the fruit worthy of repentance.

Affectionately in Our Lord,

Project Canterbury